APS News

Nature Publishing Group Starts “Free to Read” Link Sharing

By Tamela Maciel

Nature and 48 other academic journals in the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) have made all of their articles past and present “free to read” online, provided a subscriber or approved media outlet shares a link. But some open access advocates wish NPG had done more.

As of December 2014, anyone with a subscription to Nature or other NPG journals can, with the click of a button, send friends or colleagues an email with a link to the online article. Propriety software called ReadCube displays the article in a web browser for reading, but blocks saving or printing. NPG’s publisher, Macmillan Science and Education, has a majority stake in ReadCube through its technology division, Digital Science.

“We know researchers are already sharing content, often in hidden corners of the Internet or using clumsy, time-consuming practices,” said Timo Hannay, managing director of Digital Science, in a press release. “At Digital Science we have the technology to provide a convenient, legitimate alternative that encourages researchers to access the information they need and the wider, interested public access to scientific knowledge, from the definitive, original source.”

Hannay is referring to the common practice among researchers of sharing their papers online, either by emailing PDFs ahead of publishing embargos or resorting to social media outlets like Twitter to crowdsource free copies. Since this “dark sharing,” as NPG calls it, already occurs, their new read-only button is unlikely to change the amount of PDF sharing among scientists, according to a recent blog post by Michael Eisen, University of California, Berkeley biologist and open access proponent.

A larger effect might come from the 100 media outlets and blogs that can also provide “free to read” links. If the links prove popular, the public will have increased access to NPG research and, as Eisen pointed out, NPG will be able to track what is being shared and better quantify the impact on social networks.

This comes at a time when governments and funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are calling for increased open access to research results. Many advocates want full open access — free access to research immediately upon publication — but faced with the need to cover publication costs, many publishers, including APS, implement a hybrid open access policy.

Some open access advocates are unconvinced that NPG’s “free to read” initiative is the right move. “More access is always preferable to less access. But Nature’s convoluted, read-only access is insufficient … because it adds arbitrary handicaps,” said Stevan Harnad, a cognitive scientist at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Instead Harnad said the right step would be to drop the six-month embargo policy that NPG maintains before a paper can be shared online, as APS has already done.

Other publishers, including APS, allow authors to immediately self-archive their work. “The APS has long encouraged authors to share copies of the APS ‘Version of Record’ with colleagues, and APS allows authors to post copies of their articles on the author’s website or the author’s institution’s website. This goes much further than what the NPG has now announced,” said Gene Sprouse, the APS Editor in Chief.

But Sprouse also said that journal publishers must recover their costs, which include “hiring editors that manage the peer review process, building and maintaining the computer systems that preserve and serve the articles, as well as paying for copy editing and composing the articles.” At the moment those costs are chiefly met through library subscriptions, sponsors, or optional publication fees, should the author wish to be published under full open access.

In response to open access demands, many institutions are currently paying for access in two ways: a publication fee to make outgoing research open access and a subscription fee for incoming articles that are not open access.

Many researchers, institutions, and publishers favor the fundamental principles of open access, but it is the details of how to transition to this access standard without crippling publishers or research institutions along the way that causes tension.

In the future, Harnad hopes to see more publishers adopt a stance similar to that of APS, so that research institutions become the main repositories for publicly accessible research. In this way, he thinks publishing fees can be scaled back to a fraction of what they currently are and institutions will be able to afford to pay publication costs from what they save in subscription fees.

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